Secretly and Wrongfully Executed in Myanmar: My Friend “Jimmy” Kyaw Min Yu, Pride of Generation 8888

That’s Jimmy to my right. Yangon on June 20, 2013.

On July 23, 2022, Myanmar’s military secretly executed four leaders of the country’s freedom movement. The families of the martyrs, like the men themselves, were not warned in advance. The last goodbyes were never said. It was only after the dictatorship publicly announced the hangings two days later, on Monday July 25, that families and the world learned of the cold-blooded killings. To add to the pain, the remains of the deceased disappeared.

The regime is as brutal as possible in order to convey that opposing its power will cause maximum pain and suffering. Among those killed were some of the most beloved and popular leaders of the ongoing movement to overthrow the dictatorship: hip-hop artist and elected parliamentary representative, Phyo Zeya Tha, leader of Generation Wave who followed the saffron revolution of 2007; Hla Myo Aung; Aung Thura Zaw; and Kyaw Min Yu, better known to his friends, including myself, as Jimmy.

Jimmy was the pride of “the 8888 generation”. At 8:08 a.m. sharp on August 8, 1988, a synchronized and coordinated nationwide uprising broke out and established a de facto government. Neighborhoods governed themselves, students directed traffic, and councils composed mostly of monks and students served as peaceful judges and arbiters of disputes. A general strike paralyzed the economy. But the military fought back with an iron fist, thousands of people were killed and many more arrested. For weeks, the army roamed the country, arbitrarily murdering activists, until the general strike collapsed on October 3.

Having survived the massacres, Jimmy counted himself among the “lucky ones”. Along with thousands of other brave souls, he was imprisoned for years. Released in 2003, after democracy was temporarily restored, Jimmy was sentenced to an additional five years in prison in 2007 for leading protests against rising fuel prices. He was released in 2012 as part of a mass pardon, and we met the following year. Despite having spent almost 20 years in prison, he exuded happiness and confidence. When he walked smiling down the street, strangers bowed with respect and admiration. His colleagues treated him with loving attention.

I asked him how it was possible that, unlike so many others I knew who had spent years in prison, he was able to come out with such dignity and exuberance. His smile widened as he replied, “You have to understand. Yes, we were the ones who were sentenced to prison, but the director had to ask me and my colleagues if he wanted anything done. The prisoners only respected and listened to us. Inside the prisons, we had the power, and the warden was our servant who carried out the tasks we gave him. In fact, we felt sorry for the goalkeeper,” he smiles. “Continuing in a more restrained tone, he told me that poems written to him almost daily by his wife, also imprisoned, had supported his emotional well-being.

Jimmy chose his nickname because of his admiration for US President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policies. He and I had more than one round on this! Our many back and forth laughing banter saw him berate me for not accepting that the United States could play a progressive role in the world, while I spoke of the Carter administration’s bloody crackdown on the uprising of Gwangju in South Korea in 1980, covert support for Pol Pot, and stepped up military aid to Indonesia after the East Timor genocide. Jimmy jokingly announced to his colleagues that I believed my government was an enemy of freedom, while they considered it a friend.

How ironic that the country Jimmy admired does so little for the democratic aspirations of the people he died for. The United States, unlike the European Union, has not yet recognized the national unity government (NUG) made up of elected officials overthrown by the military junta which now refuses to give its ashes to Jimmy’s family.

When I probed Jimmy’s loyalty to Aung San Sui Kyi, he simply stated that she was the leader chosen by the people, that he would follow her as long as her leadership was accepted by the people. I offered criticisms that had first been directed at me by David Tharekabaw, one of the Karen guerrilla leaders, whom I had interviewed five years earlier. In David’s view, Aung San Suu Kyi’s insistence on non-violence isolated and reviled her people’s necessary armed self-defense against the army’s barbaric invasions. His father Aung San, the creator of modern Burma, was so popular precisely because he was able to unite all armed insurgencies, more than a dozen minority groups in all. In contrast, the girl elevated Burmese above minority groups, as she did so sternly in her insistence on the moral superiority of non-violent tactics. The problem rooted in his self-righteous position is now visible in the world after the Rohingya genocide. Another guerrilla leader laughingly related that Gene Sharp had arrived in their camp only a few weeks before me. Sharp was not interested in their reasons for fighting, but instead used high-tech electronic equipment to show the Power Points advocating nonviolence as the exclusive means of overthrowing the regime.

As Jimmy and I pondered these questions, he talked about the mistreatment of Muslim workers in Myanmar (then only moderately bad compared to what was to come). He informed me that Indonesia was beginning to retaliate against Burmese migrant workers. In response, his group had created a delegation to travel to Indonesia to help mend Buddhist-Muslim ties. Despite centuries of clashes between Burma and Thailand, Jimmy spoke Thai with the waiters and waitresses at his favorite Thai restaurant.

During our last face to face, he came to my hotel to give me a copy of his wife’s poems which had just been published in book form. Even though it was in Burmese and I couldn’t read a word of it, his gift and kind writing really touched me.

Jimmy was last arrested on October 23, 2021, eight months after the military again overthrew a constitutionally elected government. In January this year, he was sentenced to death along with over a hundred others, but few believed the sentences would be carried out. Capital punishment had not been applied in his country for more than three decades.

Since I learned of his execution, I haven’t been able to talk much. I have lost loved ones and friends to illnesses such as AIDS, drugs and violence. State-sponsored unjust execution is probably the most difficult category of death to accept. I alternate between searing anger and deep grief but I know which direction Jimmy would tell me to take, activism to continue the struggle for which he paid the ultimate price.

August 1, 2022, Oakland, CA.

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